A Scholarly Chat With Eva Marie Saint

You don’t have to call her “Dr. Eva Marie Saint.” But you can.

At 86, the screen legend is receiving an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco during its Epidemic Film Festival for her contributions to the stage, screen and television over nearly seven decades. And what a contribution it is: Saint won an Oscar for her turn in 1954’s “On The Waterfront” and starred in other memorable films including “A Hatful of Rain,” “Raintree County,” “The Sandpiper” and Alfred Hitchcock's cinematic masterpiece “North By Northwest,” along with a distinguished career in early television and later turns playing mother to both “Moonlighting’s” Maddie Hayes and Clark Kent in “Superman Returns.”

“I'm not particularly a scholar,” Saint tells PopcornBiz with a chuckle, but she was thrilled to be tapped to receive the honorific. “I thought that it was beautiful, because it's talking to young filmmakers, directors and actors. We're going to work with the students. My husband, Jeffrey Hayden, is a director [Hayden’s helmed countless TV episodes, from “Leave It to Beaver” to “Magnum, P.I.”] and he'll work in directing with those who want to be directors and hopefully with those who want to be actors. So it's something that we care about. It's our life's work, and if we can give back and give them a sense of ‘Hang in there and things will happen…’ And I think that's true – you have to work hard. It didn't happen overnight for me, or my husband. We just started at the bottom and worked our way up.”

She’d rather not zero in on a specific personal highlight from her storied career. “With every project there are wonderful moments,” Saint insists. "I recently did an oral history for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences this year. You do your history. It took about 50 weeks, talking with someone for about an hour and a half every Thursday. Luckily I had some journals from all these years and I could recall different things. Halfway through I said, ‘Maybe my mom should've called me Pollyanna instead of Eva Marie, because I can only recall the good things.' I know some of the unpleasant things. I've lived this long and I've been very healthy, and I think that part of it is that I just go on with it. I don't go back.”

The actress does have a remarkable recall of her early TV days. “My first role was off camera, applauding and then I was on camera applauding and then I did some cheers. 'Keds are keen, Keds are neat, Keds are the best of the family feet – Wear them!' I'd been a cheerleader in high school and so I knew all about that,”  she laughs. “When I first had a substantial role I was ready, because I had been watching the people who were carrying the shows – watching very carefully: their demeanor, how they worked and so forth and so on. 'The Trip to Bountiful' [in which Saint appeared in both the Broadway production and a 1953 television performance] was very important for me because that's where I met Lillian Gish, who became a mentor, and that's where [Elia] Kazan saw me.”

Saint said one of the most valuable lessons she learned was to give herself over to the director’s vision. “I was studying at The Actor's Studio with Lee Strasberg, and he said along the way that whatever the director wants you to do, he's the conductor and you're the instrument. So, take care of that instrument – meaning our bodies and our minds. I never forgot that,” she recalls. It helped transition from more dramatically driven roles like “On the Waterfront” to a high-glam movie star-turn for Hitchcock.

“You just do it," she affirms. "Even though I'm all gussied up in this Edith Head gown this is still a role, this is still a lady that I want to do. So from 'Waterfront' to 'North By Northwest,' I never worried about it, and I just thought about it from the acting aspect, I guess. I didn't think, 'Oh, now I'm in a glamour role.' No – she was a spy lady: she dressed that way, she had her hair that way, and she was very careful with her makeup.”

“Most people write their book, but I don't want to write my book: by the end I’d be really tired of talking about myself,” she says, laughing, of revisiting her past. “If you live long enough there are many, many changes in your life, around you. And you can't hold onto the good old days. The good old days of television, they were glorious. I think possibly everybody has maybe some time in their life that was glorious, but you don't go back and say, 'Oh my God, those were the good old days.' No – today is a good day and tomorrow is going to be better.”

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